By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — It was an ugly, listless first half for North Carolina, followed by a lengthy halftime stay in the dressing room that probably wasn’t pleasant for the Tar Heels players.
UNC (9–5, 4–3 ACC) didn’t return to the court until 1:45 remained on the halftime clock. Whatever the message was, the Tar Heels shot better, were more aggressive offensively and cut down on their turnovers.
Despite Wake Forest sinking eight 3-pointers in the second half and getting the best of the rebounding totals, Carolina’s better play after halftime was enough to beat Wake Forest 80–73 Wednesday night at the Smith Center.
It marks the first time in program history that UNC has played seven consecutive ACC games decided by seven points or fewer.
What was Coach Roy Williams’ message at halftime? He wasn’t saying, but you know halftime didn’t transpire the way he kiddingly suggested.
“What we did is we got together in a circle, held hands and sang ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Williams said.
Leaky Black, who collected eight points and eight assists, provided further clarification.
“The talent’s there, we have our horses — that kind of thing — but it doesn’t mean anything if we’re not playing hard and playing with a motor,” Black said of Williams’ message. “Y’all want to wake up and play, the game will be ours. But you keep messing around, obviously, these guys are going to hang around and it will be another game like last year.”
Black had only one turnover, giving him the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career and the best by a Tar Heel this season.
Carolina shot 54.8% in the second half, its best shooting half of the season, and had 12 assists and only three turnovers after halftime. UNC scored 13 of its season-high 24 points off turnovers in the second half and had a season-high 12 steals.
With Caleb Love’s season-high 20 points, punctuated by a pair of dunks in the final minutes, the freshman point guard appears to be finally hitting his stride. He also had three assists and four rebounds.
Throughout his shooting struggles, Love said he just kept working, and he started meditating every morning and every evening after his mom suggested it.
“That just keeps me sane, keeps my head on straight,” said Love, who was out on the court putting up shots an hour after the game. “Just being in that slump leads to a lot of stress. So just calming my mind and knowing it helps me a lot.”
Love made 7 of 12 shots, which was also a season-high field-goal total, after making only 7 of 29 in the previous three games.
“I liked the fact that he took some jump shots with confidence,” Williams said. “We had a little meeting and I told him that I think he’s getting better a little bit each and every day.”
“And so he’s been shooting the well in practice and he’s been really working at it,” Williams said. “I mean, you saw after one of our games he was still here at midnight working on a shot. So, he’s working at it and just a tremendous young man.”
Armando Bacot, who scored 18 points, said he talked with Love recently to encourage him.
“I was just telling him to just play his game and don’t be in his head. Be the guy he was coming in,” Bacot said. “I’m glad he got to show that and hoping it’s a springboard to the rest of the season.”
RJ Davis, who was the ACC freshman of the week, pitched in 13 points.
Wake Forest packed in its defense, only respected Kerwin Walton’s shooting in the first half. Carolina didn’t deal with that well. The Tar Heels couldn’t make outside shots and didn’t make good decisions when they ventured into the crowd of Deacons inside.
Carolina showed a little life by making seven of its last 11 shots in the first half, with a Love 3-pointer in the final seconds of the first half trimming a Deacons’ halftime lead to 33–31 after they led by as many as seven points.
A Bacot three-point play capped an 8–0 run with 16:03 left to put the Heels up 41–35.
After Buddy Boeheim scored 14 first-half points for Syracuse in UNC’s previous home game, it was Daivien Williamson who put up that first-half total Wednesday. Just like against Syracuse, Black started guarding the hot player after halftime. While Boeheim went scoreless in the second half, the move wasn’t nearly as effective this time as Williamson finished with 27.
The Deacons Isaiah Mucius made five of his seven 3-pointers in the second half and finished with 27 points. The Deacons’ 13 3-pointers were the most by a UNC opponent since Virginia Tech made 13 on Jan. 21, 2019.
UNC started the second half with a 14–2 run, which included a big Bacot three-point play, to take a 45–35 lead with 14:50 left on a pair of Black free throws.
A flurry of Wake Forest 3-pointers — six in a 3:16 stretch — tied it at 53 when Jalen Johnson made one with 10:12 left.
A Davis jumper gave UNC a 58–53 lead with 8:02 left and the Deacons made two 3-pointers the rest of the way. Davis followed a Love three-point play with a steal that led to a Bacot layup to shove the Heels’ lead to 69–59 with 4:45 left.
The Deacons (3–6, 0–6) haven’t won since beating Catawba College on New Year’s Eve and have lost six consecutive games.
The Tar Heels are scheduled to be back at home at 2 p.m. Saturday to face N.C. State (ESPN2) with a chance to avenge their 79–76 loss on Dec. 22 in Raleigh. The Wolfpack (6–4, 2–3) has had its last two scheduled games (Saturday vs. Georgia Tech and Wednesday at Virginia) postponed, however, which means that it’s not a given that the Saturday game will be played.
North Carolina 80, Wake Forest 73
Pool photos by Robert Willett